Tim J. Myers is a writer, songwriter, storyteller, and senior lecturer at Santa Clara University. His children’s books have won recognition from the New York Times, NPR, and the Smithsonian; he has 16 out and more on the way. He’s published over 130 poems, won a first prize in a poetry contest judged by John Updike, has three books of adult poetry out and a nonfiction book on fatherhood, and won a major prize in science fiction. He won the West Coast Songwriters Saratoga Chapter Song of the Year and the 2012 SCBWI Magazine Merit Award for Fiction. Find him at www.TimMyersStorySong.com or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/TimJMyers1.
That Saturday morning we found out suddenly that our daughter was spending the day at a friend’s. The phone rang, she asked if she could go, and within an hour my wife and I had kissed her, dropped her off, and were heading south on Highway 17. The sun was shining, but not with force; diffuse gray clouds high in the west and southwest, though dim with distance, seemed poised to move forward and mist over the warmth of the day. At first we talked intensely, as we always do at those rare times when we find ourselves alone, catching up and spilling over with all the deeper things our daily routine prevents us from looking into and sharing—especially about our children. But with the whole day before us, a luxury we only gradually came to believe in, we began to slow ourselves, feeling the unspeakable happiness of simply being together, of having time in which to let our shared life move at its own tranquil pace.
The dense urban geometry of the Valley soon gave way to the wealthy, tree-thick neighborhoods at the foot of the coastal mountains, and the road began to climb, sweeping in tight forest-lined curves as it reached toward the summit of the low pass separating the South Bay from the coast. For whole minutes at a time we said nothing to each other, both of us wearing slight but almost fixed smiles as our eyes took in the crowding mountain redwoods and broadleafs, the gray and bluish cast of the sky, the sunlight over that expanse of slopes and valleys and ramparts—and then, from the crest of the pass, a succession of high ridges in every direction, the lift of the peak the Ohlone called Umunhum or “Hummingbird,” farm-dotted lowlands beyond us to the south, even glimpses of the great blue flats of Monterrey Bay and the fog-barred, smoke-blue mountains on its far shores.
The sun would grow warmer, then cooler, but only by a little. Traffic was heavy through Santa Cruz itself, but we sang to the radio, reached over and caressed each other idly from time to time, talked when something came to mind and then slipped back happily into silence. The road was reduced to a single lane because highway workers were felling old eucalyptus trees and carrying off the cut logs; that spicy fragrance filled the air, and through our open windows we reveled in it, as we always do, even amid the whine and gas-smell of chain-saws: its odor of wind and open space and earthy fruitfulness, a dry-country smell of spare and peppery sweetness. Once we’d pushed to the city limits, past the fast-food places and little shops and other businesses, we turned north onto California 1.
The wild flowers along the way, even in early March, were beautiful beyond words: that low electric-yellow kind almost burning across roadside fields and the lower slopes of the windward mountains, and then small star-like white ones, especially pure-looking against the grassy dirt sides of low roadcuts. And of course the sea—in that light taking on a slightly dullish blue shifting at times to gray, at other times hinting, when clouds momentarily thinned, at full royal blue or indigo—and stretching as if limitless as far as we could see to west, north, and south.
From Santa Cruz the highway passes through mixed country, mostly coastal chaparral but with stands of timber everywhere, towering eucalyptus and the needle-thick grace of Monterrey pines, and, just to the east, redwood and other forests beginning as the land swells up into foothills and then mountains. We passed Davenport, its few little neighborhood blocks set on a rise high above the ocean, gray cement plant rearing from behind a screen of trees. As we had from the beginning of the trip—as we always do—we kept pointing it all out to each other: Look at that little flowering tree–think it’s jacaranda? Check out the hidden canyon. Whoa—did you see those wildflowers?—they’re practically blazing. We pointed out farm fields on cliffs above the sea—ranch houses tucked in tree-choked narrow valleys leading down from the mountains—stands of Monterrey pine, their perfect, wind-swept dark branches—beaches glimpsed as we rushed past, sea rocks or pinnacles flashing white with sudden spray, an instant’s worth of crashing green surf, a golden expanse of sand. Neither of us held anything back, not the least bit of excitement, of wonder, of childish happiness. We need to bring our bikes and take that trail, we said. We need to try that beach. Someday we should drive that road and see where it goes.
At Ano Nuevo we bought a map and then stopped at a small gate north of the main entrance. I brought our hurriedly-made lunch from the cooler in the back and we sat eating it in the car, looking out in beauty-hushed silence at the fields and the enormity of sea beyond them. We were hungry; the sandwiches were delicious—turkey and Jarlsberg on sesame bagels, with lettuce, pickles, onions. We had apples and raw carrots, felt that satisfying snap as we bit into them. The water in our bottles tasted as fresh and clean as the day around us. There was a slight chill in the air, that same easy battle between sun and cloud over the sea.
We put on our jackets and set out for the beach. Everything was green with the winter rains, and rain had fallen a day or two earlier; even the tire-pounded earth of the little parking area near the gate was bursting with patches of new grass, as perfectly green as across the hillsides to the east. Southward we could see a broad field full of the yellow wildflowers; the color shone piercing and luminous through dark bordering trees, unearthly in its radiance. We started off along a grassy trail running straight west, low brush thick and crowding on either side of it—all the varieties of coastal flora we’ve come to love, low, earth-hugging, wind-sculpted fighters, dry in leaf and stem, delicate in shape but sturdy and storm-proof, a hundred shades of green, most of them pale or subdued, with small birds flitting in and out of their thorny or tangled sanctuaries across the breadth of seaside fields. In places the trail was boggy; we had to cross jury-rigged bridges of small logs and old two-by-fours set in muddy sections. We balanced; we splashed; we laughed.
At the far edge of the fields we stood on cliffs of earth only twenty or thirty feet above the beach. It was low tide; everywhere we went along the shore the seafloor was exposed, and we realized this as we made our way south, congratulating ourselves on the luck of coming at just this time, when the great ocean had rolled back and revealed part of its hidden self. At first we stayed up on the earthen cliffs, walking, gazing out, watching birds. A turkey vulture skimmed the wind high above us; I told you for the umpteenth time to look for the “v” of its wings. We laughed about that too. Wildflowers sprinkled the grasses—the incandescent yellow ones here and there, like bits of St. Elmo’s fire strewn by a storm up beyond the beach, and another whose richer golden-yellow was subdued by hints of brown, little cupped petals amid green leaves, here and there as we hiked past. The recent rain had made some of the cliff-edges unstable; everywhere we saw huge slices of grass-topped earth leaning away toward the sea, as if icebergs ready to calf, and some had slid away or fallen completely, tilting at crazy angles on the beach or along gully walls, grass and tall weeds still standing straight out from them, as green and alive with coming spring as if nothing had happened, as if their imminent deaths didn’t matter at all.
After a while we came to a scattered stand of trees, eucalyptus and Monterrey pine again. A small but intense bunching of the yellow flowers, invisible till we were standing next to it, had taken hold among the whitened trunks of fallen eucalyptus. Other trees had collapsed onto the beach as the wet ground beneath them gave way—some in previous winters—and lay there bleached and skeleton-like on fine-grained sand. Here we found a descending trail to the beach, feeling a bit of pain in our knees as we worked our way down a steep sandy pitch covered with ice plants, the serried pale aloe-like leaves dotted with purple and raspberry-colored flowers.
It was wonder after wonder, small as a leaf, broad as the sky. Still we kept calling each other, pointing things out. Close to the fallen trees the first creek emptied onto the beach—small but rain-swollen and mud-colored, it burst right out of a lower section of the tawny dirt cliffs, plunging three or four feet and then rushing over an expanse of breadloaf-sized stones toward the low surf. Its chattering among the stones was beautiful—not comely, but pure, wild, a hissing and gurgling, giving off a feeling of cold clean water, a sense of northern oceans. And we kept crossing creeks like this—most of them probably existing only after heavy rains—but each of the five different from the rest: one moving more quietly over smaller rocks and pebbles—another fanning directly across the sand, which it moved in endless wave-like patterns down the slight slope of the beach, creating ever-changing auroras with curtain-like spreads of black iron bits against the tan and gold, rippling and humping among a dozen little channels.
Along the open beach, wide and flat, we walked and kept looking, sniffing in the pungent sea smell and the clean wind. For a while we’d walk close together, holding hands sometimes, reaching out and touching each other even as we’d concentrate on what we were looking at or turning over with our feet or our fingers. Then we’d wander off in different directions, following whatever called to us, gradually looping back together—one pausing and then the other, ahead, turning and waiting—one calling, Come see this! The tide-lifted stones massed or scattered along parts of the beach were stunning; in the slow flow of time, in the cloud-drift and endless calm breaking of the easy surf, it felt as if the whole earth were breathing in and out with the waves, a measured, contented, animal respiration—and we were part of it, could look down at this rock or that one, stoop to pick up another, brush off the sand, wash it in the channels of fresh water hurrying past, hold it up and watch the sun strike it. It was still a bit chilly, but the walk had warmed us.
Ahead we saw a deep-brown shelf of rock, about eight feet high, set horizontally against the earthen cliffs and extending along the beach for a couple of hundred yards, broken here and there as if a floor with gaping holes in it, so that between the terrace-pieces beach sand randomly intervened, surf pushing forward in its noisy low rushes and swirling against the dark terrace bottoms. So we climbed a small slope of hard black knobbed ground and walked the terraces. There were tide pools here and there, brilliantly sunlit, and the terrace surface, though generally flat, was shaped in many places into fluid and art-like swellings and curvings of stone. Much of it was riddled with small holes, probably from rock-boring sealife—and many of the hole-riddled stone mounds were filled with broken white clam or mussel shells, some ivoried by the elements, most egg-shell white. We stood at the edges of the terraces and watched the surf break beneath us, leaping up at the rocks, foaming and receding.
On the far side of the terraces we climbed down through another low gully and walked out onto the broadest expanse of beach we’d yet come to, the ruined buildings of Ano Nuevo Island clearly visible across the surf to the southwest. Looking to either side, we noted the colors of rocks strewn in wave-shouldered piles here and there—shades of sea-green, a brick-like nearly-ruby red that shone in the sun, various patterns of white cracked with black lines, browns cut with gold, speckled white or gray like wild birds’ eggs. My wife found a bit of shell rich with shining nacre, layered in rough ovals as if some kind of armor; its rainbow reflections in the strengthening sunlight held us silent with awe. I found another one, and she said we’d give it to our daughter. Further along the beach we suddenly stopped; to the left of us, nestled cozily against a low dune, was the huge form of a napping elephant seal, log-brown and loglike, only thirty feet away. As we watched, it raised a golden-brown flipper lazily, seeming almost to gesture, then let it drop.
So we turned around and retraced our steps, finding more rocks whose beauty we couldn’t ignore, holding them, drinking their shapes and colors in, reluctantly letting them fall to the sand again. We paused to look up at the mountains, to watch the surf break, to seek out tide pools in the stone flats exposed here and there along the water’s edge—and always, again and again, turning our eyes out to sea, to gaze at it so long, so lovingly, so aching with its hugeness and mystery, so stunned by its weight of alien existence we could do nothing but look and look, and then turn away—half out of its eternal uneventfulness, but half out of the pain of being small and mortal and trying to understand something so gigantic in space and time. The sun came out in earnest; the day grew warm, even hot. She took off her jacket, I took off mine. We tied them around our waists. When we crossed the small beach creeks and had to wade a little, the cool of the water felt good against our feet as it came through our shoes and socks.
We kept going north, but instead of climbing up to the fields where we’d come down, we pressed on along the beach, soon finding ourselves in a moonscape of broken boulders and tide-exposed rock flats. Here and there a pinnacle rose in the sunlight, the chalky dryness of its upper portions showing how it stood above the sea even at high tide. But everything else across this dark jagged boneyard was sea-secret, except for now, beaming sun working half-effectually on its wet surfaces and on the remaining pools in sandy deeps or rocky bowls. We went slowly, stepping from rock to rock, looking for flat ones, our feet wrenching to the side sometimes when a rock would shift or roll beneath us; we could feel the rock-edges through the soles of our shoes. There were acres of this drying submarine rock, but we picked our way through, moving slowly, feeling the happiness of working our muscles, of clean sweat. Here and there hardened sections of tide-packed sand, beige as it half-dried in the sunlight, gave us an easier path through the jumble. We kept looking down, then looking up, placing our feet carefully but drawn again and again to the wild shapes of the rocks, the black tumbled piles, the sudden low ridges, the craggy up and down of their brief time in the open air, waves lifting their white heads beyond as if hungry to return.
Near the trail that would take us back up, we saw a man and woman sitting on a stretch of sand at the foot of one of the earthen cliffs. They waved as we drew near, then pointed behind them to their right. Did you see that?! the woman asked. We drew up, looked—and stepped back involuntarily. Fifteen feet from us, where we’d just passed, another elephant seal lay dozing in the sand. As we spoke excitedly to the couple, the great animal raised its head, huge proboscis bobbing, and looked at us—and I marveled at the contrast between its overall blubbery ugliness and those sorrowful, liquid, pup-like eyes.
We crossed a deeper stream on piled stones, getting our feet thoroughly wet—realized we’d gone the wrong way and crossed back again—then found a narrow path leading through thick brush to the clifftop again. My wife warned me about poison oak. As we re-crossed the field toward the parking area, a hawk worked the chaparral off in the distance and gulls passed high overhead. All day we’d been like the wandering gulls ourselves, or like happy dogs, running together and then apart, returning to each other—like two children playing, our minds so full of everything before us that we hardly gave a conscious thought to each other, and yet parted only to return, time and again, Look at this! Feel this!—so alone that we were utterly together, so together that we were utterly alone—speaking relatively little (for us), and yet held together in that silence, half-hypnotized by the world, lost in the intoxication of its harsh or surging or gentle or elegant beauties. More than once I had to call her from her sea-gazing, which threatened, as it often does, to draw the selkie-soul right out of her body, leaving only the shell of a human woman behind on the beach.
I can still feel how those slow perfect hours unwound. And I can sense how we seemed to have stepped into Love itself—an overflowing love that filled everything with radiance—even in the early chill of a half-gray day, the raw grain of rocks, the bone-white of dead tree trunks, the waste reaches of the sea. And the love we felt for each other, unspoken, as if invisible, was for those long silent sun-warmed hours indistinguishable from the love that burns in all things.
We came back and unlocked the van, felt the afternoon’s trapped heat inside it, started up the highway back home. The sky overhead was now a flawless blue, almost emptied of clouds. Our return trip was uneventful—since love, of course, isn’t an event, and the deepest satisfactions don’t happen but are. Along the highway we watched the sea, then turned northwest back into the mountains.